Nothing About Us, Without Us: Equitable evaluation through community engagement

 

This is a “guest post” from the Colorado Virtual Library Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion blog.

When you wake up, one of the first things you might do is open your weather app to see what the temperature is and if it’s supposed to rain that day. You then use that information—or data—to make important decisions, like what to wear and whether you should bring an umbrella when you go out. The fact is, we are all collecting data every day—and we use that data to inform what we do next.

It’s no different in libraries. We collect data about circulation, program attendance, the demographics of our community, and so on. When we collect the data in a formalized way and use it to make decisions, we call this evaluation. Simply put, “evaluation determines the merit, worth, or value of things,” according to evaluation expert Michael Scriven.

Equitable Evaluation

So what does this have to do with equity, diversity, and inclusion? Well…everything. If evaluation does in fact determine the merit, worth, or value of programs and services, what happens when your library’s evaluation excludes or overlooks certain groups from the data? Let’s take a look:

You are trying to evaluate patron satisfaction at your library, so you print off a stack of surveys and leave them on the lending desk for patrons to take. While everyone in your target audience may have equal access to the survey (or in other words, are being treated the same), they don’t all have equitable access. Sometimes people may need differing treatment in order to make their opportunities the same as others. In this case, how would someone who has a visual impairment be able to take a printed survey? What about someone who doesn’t speak English? These patrons would likely ignore your survey, and without demographic questions on language and disability, the omission of these identities might never be known. Upon analyzing your data, conclusions might be made to suggest, “X% of patrons felt this way about x, y, and z.” In reality, your results wouldn’t represent all patrons—only sighted, English-speaking patrons.

Inequities are perpetuated by evaluation when we fail to ensure our methods are inclusive and representative of everyone in our target group. The data will produce conclusions that amplify the experiences and perspectives of the dominating voice while simultaneously reproducing the idea that their narrative is representative of the entire population. Individuals who have historically been excluded will continue to be erased from our data and the overarching narrative, serving to maintain current power structures.

Evaluation With the Community, not On the Community

That’s a heavy burden to take on as an evaluator and a library professional, especially when taking part in people’s marginalization is the last thing you would want to do. Luckily, the research community has long been working on some answers to this problem. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is contingent on the participation of those you are evaluating (your target population) and emphasizes democratization of the process. CBPR is defined as:

“focusing on social, structural, and physical environmental inequities through active involvement of community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process. Partners contribute their expertise to enhance understanding of a given phenomenon and integrate the knowledge gained with action to benefit the community involved.”

CBPR centers around seven key principles:

  1. Recognizes community as a unit of identity
  2. Builds on strengths and resources
  3. Facilitates collaborative partnerships in all phases of the research
  4. Integrates knowledge and action for mutual benefit of all partners
  5. Promotes a co-learning and empowering process that attends to social inequalities
  6. Involves a cyclical and iterative process
  7. Disseminates findings and knowledge gained to all partners

As one librarian put it, CBPR “dismantles the idea that the researcher is the expert and centers the knowledge of the community members.” When those that you are evaluating (whether it be patrons, non-users, people with a disability, non-English speakers, etc.) are involved in the entire process, your data will invariably become more equitable. As a result, your evaluation outcome will more effectively address real problems for your community. It’s a win-win for everyone.

However, if diving into a full community-based participation evaluation feels impossible given your time and resources, it’s okay. Think of CBPR as your ideal and then adjust to a level that is feasible for your library. The continuum of community engagement below outlines what some of those different levels might look like.

The continuum of community engagement ranges from total CBPR on the left end of the spectrum to community engagement on the right end of the spectrum. Total CBPR is full involvement in all parts of the study development and conduct. CBPR light is partial involvement in some or all parts of the study development and conduct. Community based research is research conducted in collaboration with members of the community. And community engagement is working with community members and agencies to reach community members.

The Big Takeaway

Evaluating your practices, policies, and programs in a library can lead to better outcomes for your library community. However, even the best of intentions can create harm for historically underrepresented groups when they are excluded from the very data used to make decisions that impact them. When undertaking an evaluation of any kind, think about the principles of CBPR and how you can incorporate them into your plan.

Guest Post: Why Use Inclusive Language

The Colorado State Library (CSL)’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Team (EDIT) is dedicated to raising awareness about EDI issues and spotlighting those values in Colorado’s cultural heritage profession. This guest post is the first in CSL’s new blog series that will regularly be posted on Colorado Virtual Library here. Twice a month, members of the LRS team will be looking at EDI research and how it applies to the library profession. We encourage you to visit the CVL website to learn more! 


Using appropriate terminology is a vital part of being an effective communicator. Using inclusive language is a way of showing consideration for everyone we meet. It is a way of recognizing, accepting, and sometimes celebrating personal characteristics such as gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other attributes that make up a person’s identity. Using inclusive language centers the individual person and is one way of showing solidarity, allyship, and just plain old kindness. In a profession that aims to foster a welcoming, respectful, and accessible environment, inclusive language should be part of the everyday vernacular of library staff.

So, what is inclusive language?

As the Linguistic Society of America puts it:

Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.

Inclusive language is the intentional practice of using words and phrases that correctly represent minority—and frequently marginalized—communities, such as LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions, immigrants, etc. The key is to avoid hurtful, stereotypical language that makes individuals feel excluded, misunderstood, and/or disrespected. The use of inclusive language acknowledges that marginalized communities have ownership over the terminology that they use to refer to themselves, not the majority. It should also be noted that terminology isn’t necessarily ubiquitous across an entire group.

Keeping up-to-date

You might have said to yourself, there are so many new words or phrases nowadays, it’s hard to keep up! You might also have felt like you were worried about “saying the wrong thing.” Rest assured that language is always evolving as social, cultural, and technological changes occur, and you’re not expected to know everything all of the time. A willingness to learn and an awareness that you don’t have all the answers are extremely helpful traits that can aid in building trust with the people you meet.

One resource to keep in mind is the Pacific University’s extensive glossary of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion terms. Northwestern’s Inclusive Language Guide also offers a lot of examples of preferred terms.

Centering the individual first

Inclusive language centers the individual by referring foremost to someone as a person. Doing so reinforces the idea that someone is not defined by certain characteristics, such as race, religion, or disability. For example, it is still fairly common to refer to a person with a disability as simply “disabled.” It is now becoming more standard to use the phrase “Person with a disability.” The aim is to acknowledge the individual person first; this is also known as person-first or person-centered language. For example, “She is a person with a disability” rightfully acknowledges that this person has a disability, but they are not one-and-the-same, or synonymous with that disability. For more on inclusive language with respect to disability, check out this guide by the Stanford Disability Initiative.

Another way of thinking about centering the individual is with respect to race and ethnicity. Instead of referring to “a black” or “a Jew,” simply remembering to add the word “person” (i.e., a black person, a Jewish person) affirms that you are describing a person above all, while making it clear that you are not defining someone based on a single trait.

Pronouns: If you’re not sure, ask

Mostly we use the pronouns that are consistent with the person’s gender expression regardless of what we think their biological sex might be. If you are unsure of how to refer to an individual or what the correct words to use may be, asking respectful questions creates an opportunity for learning and the person you are asking may—or may not, as is their right—wish to affirm their identity to you. If you are unsure of a person’s pronouns, and it is appropriate to ask, keep it simple with something like, “Would you mind sharing what pronouns I should use when speaking to you?” In the case of gender identity, it is always better to ask than to assume. For more information on LGBTQ+ inclusive language, check out the Ally’s Guide to Terminology by GLAAD.

Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Also, a person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to using pronouns consistent with that gender. When it isn’t possible to ask what pronoun a person would prefer, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression.

-From GLAAD’s Ally’s Guide to Terminology

Do your research

Inclusive language is a broad and evolving topic. As with most things, doing a little bit of solo research can go a long way. Try to utilize reliable, research-based sources whenever possible, and also seek out the voices of experts from diverse backgrounds.

Conclusion

Intentionally using and remaining receptive to the appropriate terminology are key ways of giving others the dignity they deserve. Library staff engage with an intersection of many different types of people on a day-to-day basis. It is critical that we reinforce what libraries represent as an inclusive place for all by using the language that mirrors our values.

By Michael Peever, Consultant Support Specialist at Colorado State Library